African wild dog reproductive biology still remains poorly studied yet this knowledge is important for understanding and improving reproductive success for this species. My name is Leanne Van der Weyde and I am a PhD student working for IBREAM’s African Wild Dog project.
My research is focused on the studying the reproductive physiology of African wild dogs and applying this to current conservation programs. The primary aim of my project is to characterise the oestrous cycle of females through faecal sampling. This knowledge can provide valuable insights into changes in hormones during particular oestrous phases which, can influence factors like dominance relationships, reproductive success, sex-ratios and litter size. Studies will be made on both breeding and non-breeding females to create longitudinal profiles of the oestrous cycle and supplemented with behavioural data to further understand factors important to reproduction.
The African wild dog is a cooperatively breeding species in which the dominant pair almost exclusively breeds in a pack. As a consequence subordinate members are generally reproductively suppressed either behaviourally and/or physiologically. Studying hormone changes in females will help further understand this as well as providing valuable knowledge in comparative studies of captive and free-ranging individuals.
So far in my PhD I have worked with several zoos from June to November 2009 collecting faecal samples from female members of various groups. Faecal samples are ideal methods for collecting data on various steroid hormones that are involved in reproduction and are completely non-invasive to the animal. Firstly I completed a pilot study at Perth Zoo to determine the best way for collecting known faecal samples from particular individuals. Then in several zoos in Europe and the UK I began collecting faecal samples from female wild dogs in different zoo housed groups during their breeding season. The zoos that participated in this study included Duisburg Zoo, Port Lympne Wild Animal and Safari Park, Artis Zoo, and West Midland Safari Park. During this research I collected data on breeding females as well as all-female groups. After completing this captive fieldwork I returned to the University of Western Australia to begin analysing the faecal samples for specific steroid concentrations.
The next stage of my project beginning in February 2010 is to work with free-ranging wild dogs at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. During this fieldwork I intend to also continue collecting faecal samples for further understanding of the oestrous cycles to complement the captive work. In addition, I also intend to look other issues that may be important for wild dog conservation. This includes physiological attributes of puberty, dispersal and stress as well as environmental and behavioural factors involved in reproduction.
I could not have completed the first stage of the captive work without the valuable contribution of many people. Most importantly these include Volker Grun, Adrian Harland, Rich Barnes, Katie McDonald, Nina Honer, Rebecca Rust, Kathy Starr, Peter Bleesing and all the wild dog keepers from each zoo for continual assistance, support and helpful advice.